In February 2011, Christchurch captured world headlines when New Zealand’s second-largest city was jolted by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, flattening downtown buildings and claiming 181 human lives in its debris-laden wake.
Though parts of downtown are still cordoned off due to instability, the process of rebuilding is in high gear and Christchurch wants the world to know they are open to visitors.
My first stop in Christchurch is the International Antarctic Centre located adjacent to Christchurch International Airport – it’s about an eight-minute walk from the terminal. With the availability of coin-operated luggage lockers just outside the attraction, it’s easy to visit either coming to or after landing at the airport.
What I didn’t know is that Christchurch is considered the official gateway to Antarctica because it was the staging area for Operation Deep Freeze I in 1955, when the U.S. Air Force arrived with eight aircraft. (The flight to Antarctica takes about five hours in a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster and about seven hours in the C-130 Hercules.)
Then, in 1992 and at a cost of more than $8 million, the International Antarctic Centre opened for visitors, cementing the Christchurch-Antarctic connection.
Today, the International Antarctic Centre is one of Christchurch’s prime tourist attractions. Located at the heart of a working campus, it offers an interactive experience that’s all about the frozen continent of extremes – the windiest, driest, highest and coldest place on earth.
Virtual Antarctica – Through the Lens
My favorite feature was the 4D “Extreme Theatre,” featuring 3D movie technology but with special effects like falling snow, wind and rain, fog, simulated motion and dramatic lighting. Don’t miss the stunning 17-minute film “Beyond the Frozen Sunset,” which follows the Antarctic seasonal arc from sunset to sunrise, as shot from the underbelly of a helicopter.
Smallest Penguin in the World
The International Antarctic Centre also houses Little Blue penguins that have been rescued due to physical disabilities that seriously jeopardized their survival in the wild. It’s best to catch the penguins at feeding times of 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., when these flightless birds are most active – and photogenic – and when the Antarctic Rangers give a commentary.
This is perhaps the easiest way to get a glimpse of the Little Blue Penguin, the world’s smallest penguin.
Go for a ride in the mechanical workhorse of the Antarctic: a Hägglund, an authentic Antarctic all-terrain vehicle, the only one of its type in the world. This 10-minute outdoor journey will have you speeding across open ground, climbing the Hill of Terror, and then plunging into a pond to demonstrate its amphibious capabilities.
Billed as the "World’s Best Antarctic Attraction," the International Antarctic Centre is open every day of the year, including Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.